Jacques Chessex (translated by Martin Sokolinsky)
Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99
Kindle: Not Available
Review: Billy O’Callaghan
Until his death in 2009, Jacques Chessex was a controversial giant of Swiss literature. Esteemed as a poet, painter and novelist, his work has been compared to Camus in its relentless explorations of the psyche, punctuated by heady surrealistic sunbursts. The Tyrant was published in 1973 as L’Ogre and made its author the first non-national winner of France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
The tyrant of this novel is a doctor, husband and father, Paul Calmet. A force of nature, successful in business and perversely loved by his patients for his lack of bedside manner, he is also a mass of contradictions, angry, jocular, mocking, ebulliently selfish. Yet by the time we first encounter him, in the novel’s opening chapter, he is dead, freshly cremated. His family, a detached and characterless group, barely mourns, but the novel’s attention fixes on the youngest and most damaged son, Jean, a bachelor schoolteacher approaching middle-age. At first, in contemplating his father’s death, Jean feels free, but it quickly becomes obvious that, even reduced to an urn of dust, the doctor’s spirit lives on, to domineer, judge, and intimidate.
The claim of tyranny is difficult to deny. We witness through recollection the taunting, the remarks designed to sting and humiliate, the infidelities, even the plundering of Jean’s first potential girlfriend, a crude, buxom 17-year-old taken on as a medical assistant and quickly stripped of her virginity. The doctor is a monstrous man. Yet, perhaps because this is so meticulously established, the moments that shine most brightly are the brief suggestions of humanity and love, the playful night-time shaves, the father-and-son trips to attend a patient, the dinner-time jousts that stray inevitably beyond the pale, though only ever through good intent. What emerges might be an image less of a tyrant than of a man too ferocious, flawed and vital for the limitations of domestic bliss.
Chessex revels in detail. His prose, even in translation, is rich and dense, never less than beautiful. But it is his understanding of emotion that lends his sentences such weight. Like all great writers, he manipulates us with small, subtle jabs that reveal their damage only as a cumulative effect. Essentially, The Tyrant is a consideration of a weak and fragile son’s struggle to escape the overbearing shadow of his father. But such simplification is just the bare skin of a complex, psychological study, one which shines a light on masculinity and the nature of men, the need for freedom and for absolution through the apportioning of blame, and the skewed perspective that time and death can offer.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved